MANILA, MAY 9, 2006 (STAR) By Tanya T. Lara - The age before there was the cell phone might as well be the age before God turned on the light switch for the entire universe. At least, this is what tweens must feel like when they try to imagine life before the word "text" actually became an accepted verb without grammarians getting a stroke.

At least for us people in their 30s, we remember the time when cell phones looked and felt like bricks, when a pay phone was all you needed to mobilize people. And one more thing, didn’t we swear that we wouldn’t be one of them – those who changed cell phones whenever a new model was rolled out – and suddenly we found ourselves saving money, swapping and actually replacing a phone that’s in perfect working order just because there was a new one on the market?

Thanks in large part to Nokia, cell phones in the Philippines have become not just a means to communicate, but a venue to be creative (who starts those chain graphic messages that use letters and numbers?), annoying (again with the chain messages), and proactive (didn’t we overthrow a presidency not by word of mouth but by text?).

So, when Nokia sponsored Smart Addict’s Slinky party in Boracay over the Easter weekend recently, we decided to put Nokia Philippines country general manager Mike Smith in the hot sand and ask him: For a company that’s in the business of communication, isn’t it ironic that the cell phone has actually lessened people’s need to communicate face to face? Are we communicating more or less?

Mike laughs and says, "Definitely Nokia has provided more options to communicate. Has that confused us, helped us, made us colder, pulled us apart or closer together? That’s for other groups to say. We’re simply providing the platforms and the solutions and we’re doing it with the best of intentions. Technology always impacts the way people communicate. It’s a double-edge sword. Just the simple technology of texting, which we’ve taken for granted, is a blessing from a parent’s point of view. Now you can know where your child is all the time."

Nokia Philippines opened its operations in the Philippines in 1995, but according to Mike, as early as 1992 Nokia phones were being imported by telecom companies. Today, Nokia dominates the Asian market with the exception of Japan and Korea. In the Philippines, it’s always been the No. 1 phone.


Why has Nokia been very successful in the Philippines that every other mobile phone maker is a very distant second?

Since the beginning, our texting interface has been one of the reasons for our success in the Philippines, especially when prepaid came out and we had a strong offering of phones that were very cheap and easy to use. Plus we also had phones that suited different preferences, different colors and sizes and features.

What’s the profile of a Nokia user?

The range is just so broad that there’s a cell phone for everybody, whether you’re a fashionista, a CEO or a technophobe. At the outset we segmented the market into two basic groups – people who were open to using cell or mobile phone technology – those who felt the technology was useful, exciting, even sexy; and people who totally didn’t care about it. We’ve always had products that appeal to both early adapters and those who wanted to be on the edge of technology, and those that viewed it as simply functional.

How important is the Philippine market for Nokia? In the grand scheme of things, are we just a dot on Nokia’s map?

The Philippines is a key market. We’ve segmented the world into different areas and in Asia Pacific, we are very important.

But why are we important?

We are still the texting capital of the world. It’s crucial for us to learn from the way people are using the phones here. From there we introduce new features, like shortcuts or text-friendly features where you can write now and send it later. In fact, some of our phones have a bilingual dictionary, so you can actually text in Taglish, and it will help you if you use predictive texting. We introduced this dictionary in the entry models first like the 1100 , 1600, 1110 . Depending on how people respond to it, we might adapt it to the higher-end models.

Who decides on those things? The local offices?

Nokia has always been noted for consensual management. It’s a very flat organization, so there’s a lot of interaction between the countries, the region and the global office. The country offices have a lot of influence in telling the region and consequently the global what is important, what we think is a good area to focus in this market, and this might actually spread out to other markets.

Are we the first in the bilingual texting feature?

I think so, because the Philippines is unique in a sense that our English and Tagalog use the same alphabet, and we have a lot of words that sound and are spelled like English words.

Do you have an idea how many texts we send and receive a day in the country?

The last time I looked it was something like a hundred million texts a day, and it peaks seasonally of course, like holidays, and during elections.

In terms of product development, who influences the trends, is it the regions or market segments?

It’s an interaction of both. We have internal programs that provide for each country to give feedback in terms of shaping the features. There are ongoing forums to help shape or improve these, or even remove the features that did not catch on.

A lot of phones have removed things like the fax support, except for the 9500 and 9300 which are able to display fax properly, to free up space for other features. Before, it was widespread among the lines, but we’ve found out that people who want to use their phones as a fax modem prefer to have everything in one package, so the 9500 and 9300 are unique because with these you can see the fax as it is displayed on the screen and respond from the screen, whereas with other phones you need to connect to a PC.

What’s your projection for the N91, are people excited about it?

Since it was announced last year, it’s created a lot of buzz. The N series in general appeals to users who are very passionate and comfortable with technology. They know how to use it to enhance their lives. Whether you’re using the N90, which is like a phone and camcorder, or the N91, which is a music player, these are people who take advantage of 3G, wireless LAN, web browsing. They probably have their own websites or know how to share their pictures in web-based albums, plug-ins, etc. With their phones they don’t have to bring their laptops anymore because they can do everything with it.

The way the N series gave people an alternative to the laptop when they’re on trips – do you think the N91 will do that with people’s iPods?

That is difficult to say, and that’s certainly not our intention. What we’re attempting to do is to give them powerful, combined products that have capabilities to send e-mail, MMS plus multi-media features like a sharp camera, video on demand, and a music player. When you’re in Bora walking on the beach, it’s a hassle to bring all your gadgets – your phone, iPod and camera. What differentiates Nokia is interconnectivity. For instance, your digicam has to be connected to a PC for you to send it; with our phones, you could either use 3G, wireless LAN or MMS. It’s a couple of clicks away. We’re certainly pushing the envelope, like we’re coming up with a three-megapixel camera phone. Lord knows where we’re going to be at the end of the year.

Do you think convergence will still leave room for people who want their devices separate – for a phone to be a phone, a camera to be a camera, etc.

I think there will be people who will prefer separate devices and people who will be comfortable with converged devices. It’s hard to say how the proportion will be. Three years ago we announced a tie-up with Visa, wherein the phone is used as a smart card – or an e-pass of sorts for the subways and other public transportation – a swipeless interface that uses a chip. Maybe we’re just a few steps away from implementing that here because you always bring your phone with you anyway.

Of all the Nokia phones, what are your favorites?

Oh my God, that’s a tough question. I guess the phones that are about to come out, the N80, before that the N70.

But you’re talking about products last year! Of the older ones, the nostalgic phones?

6630 was a very good phone, one of our early 3D offerings in the country. As a product manager, I have to upgrade my phone whether I like it or not, but there are phones that I tend to keep longer. Prior to that was the 6600.

How many new models can we expect this year?

In the past two years the trend was between 30 and 40 a year, covering the world. There are certain products that we don’t get for our market because they might be using a different protocol or are not text friendly.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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